Bhangra, for the few of you who don’t know, is a British musical genre, created by East Indian musicians mixing traditional Punjabi music with, well, whatever happens to be hip. There are even Bhangra raves. You get the picture: an up-to-date rendition of ancient music. Since its beginnings in the early 1980’s, Bhangra has not only become extremely popular throughout Britain and Europe, but also crossover success, often hitting the non-world pop charts.
This Rough Guide consists of Bhangra hits of the 1990’s, covering a diverse and eclectic mixture of musical styles. The common thread throughout is melodic: remove the drum machines and synths, and what is left sounds like the music of northeastern India. It’s the mix with Western styles that gives Bhangra its appeal. Bombay Talkie’s “Chargiye” mixes samples, rap background elements and Brit-pop synth lines with tabla and chant vocals. A.S. Kang’s “Valeti Boliyan” mixes almost ska-revival sub-beat over otherwise rather traditional backing, discounting the scratchy samples.
The problem with Bhangra is either you dig it or you don’t. And I definitely don’t. I spent most of my twenties coming up with any excuse to avoid going to dance clubs (in favour of “real” music). And to endure all those styles, no matter the context, is simply not a priority in my current musical life. Like most British pop music, Bhangra is guided by fashion, a very fleeting thing in the scene. Most, if not all, of these songs sound horribly outdated. I mean, acid-jazz has been passé for, what, almost 6 years now: there’s three tracks in that vein.
It gets worse. All spoken samples are utterly devoid of originality (Fatboy Slim’s “We’re gonna do a song, that you’ve never heard before” sample shows up), and they further date the tracks. Big on intros, Bhangra also suffers from production techniques popular in the era they are recorded in. Every track on this disc suffers from that annoying early 90’s Brit-pop “digital treble,” where highs are mixed up (although I’m not sure why), and a “scooped” middle, living limp bass to hold things up. Horrendously over-produced, too: there’s a remix of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn’s “Piya Re Piya Re,” completely with fat TR-909 drum machines and cheesy Bootsy Collins bass samples.
The packaging is quite nice, and the extensive liner notes (usually reserved for document recordings, not a “World K-Tel” package like this) are definite pluses. One word of warning: this enhanced CD, which contains HTML-based files with additional information, has a weird habit of booting into CD-ROM mode mid-song. (I’ve tried three different machines, with three different OS’s: same thing on all). This is therefore a disc that should be reserved your home stereo.
If you like Bhangra or can get past the cheesy dance elements, this Rough Guide might be a good investment, although you may already own most of the tracks. If the style sounds interesting to you, this disk provides a good, albeit somewhat dated, overview. But, if the term “drums ‘n bass” strikes fear in your soul, avoid this disc. It’s nice to see Dead Can Dance had pan-cultural potential, if nothing else.